WASHINGTON — The State Department said Sunday it has ordered family members of U.S. embassy staff in Kiev, Ukraine, to leave the country amid growing concerns about a possible Russian invasion.
The embassy will remain open for the time being, senior State Department officials said during a briefing with reporters, but some diplomats have also been allowed to leave.
The State Department also raised the possibility of Russian military action by maintaining its travel risk advisory at Level 4, the highest category, urging US citizens not to travel to Ukraine. The advisory was raised to this level last month due to concerns over Covid-19.
State Department officials said the steps were taken “out of an abundance of caution,” but the United States would “be unable” to evacuate American citizens if Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia has stationed around 100,000 troops near the neighboring country’s border.
“U.S. citizens in Ukraine should be aware that Russian military action anywhere in Ukraine would severely affect the ability of the U.S. Embassy to provide consular services, including assistance to U.S. citizens departing Ukraine. “, said the State Department in its travel advisory.
Visa processing and most other consular services at the embassy will continue for the time being, officials said.
The embassy is one of the largest US missions in Europe. It has about 900 employees in total, the vast majority of them Ukrainians, some of whom have been with the mission since it opened three decades ago.
State Department officials said they do not know how many US citizens are currently in Ukraine.
Officials said they would review in 30 days whether the family members had left and whether authorized personnel had chosen to leave. They urged all other Americans in Ukraine to use commercial and private transportation to leave as soon as possible.
The U.S. Embassy in Minsk, neighboring Belarus, issued a new alert late Sunday also urging Americans to stay away from public protests and consider leaving the country amid “reports of unusual new Russian military activities near the borders of Ukraine, including the border with Belarus”. Last week, State Department officials accused Russian President Vladimir V. Putin of moving troops, tanks and other equipment into Belarus and positioning them to invade Ukraine under the guise of carrying out military exercises.
Britain on Saturday accused Mr Putin of plotting to replace the Ukrainian government with pro-Russian leaders, and the State Department warned that Moscow could sow false intelligence that could then be used to justify an invasion.
President Biden has considered several options that could expand the US military presence in the region, including deploying several thousand US troops, as well as warships and aircraft, to NATO allies in the Baltics. and in Eastern Europe.
William Taylor, a retired veteran diplomat who served twice as ambassador to Ukraine, said in an interview that he was not surprised by the State Department’s decision. He said conversations about a possible evacuation took place for one to two months between the embassy and State Department headquarters in Washington.
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
“I think it’s a prudent step,” he said. “On the Russian side, there is the continuous reinforcement, the continuous gathering of troops.” He pointed out that the Russian military has missiles that can cross Ukraine and weapons that can hurl artillery shells deep into Ukraine.
And tensions could rise next week as the Biden administration steps up deterrence measures, said Mr. Taylor, who was most recently an ambassador under President Donald J. Trump and testified at the first impeachment hearing of the Biden. former president, which centered on a pressure campaign. by Mr. Trump involving Ukraine.
The State Department occasionally reduces staff at U.S. embassies and consulates as a precautionary measure when conflicts or other crises arise that could put U.S. diplomats at risk.
Biden administration officials remain scarred by the sudden fall of Kabul, Afghanistan to the Taliban last August, which prompted the hasty evacuation of Afghan civilians, Americans and citizens of many other countries in the country. .
Before the Taliban took control of the city, Mr Biden said there would be ‘no circumstances’ in which US embassy workers in Kabul would have to be evacuated by helicopter – a statement made to calm fears of the kind of chaotic start that came with the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese army in April 1975.
Yet as scores of people were airlifted to Kabul airport in August, the scenes of panic and violence spread around the world.
Several US embassies and consulates ordered all but essential employees to return home in 2020 as the coronavirus swept the world. The US embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was one of the most recent to do so, in November, as violence in that country’s north threatened to overrun the capital. State Department officials said the evacuation of the embassy in Kabul was a factor in that decision.